The Forgotten Benefit of the Incarnation
The first thought that usually comes to mind when thinking about the incarnation of Christ—of Immanuel—is that of a saviour who would die for our sin. This, of course, is good and true. The prophets prophesied of it, the gospel narratives teach and display it, and the apostles expound it in their letters. The cross is the greatest benefit of the incarnation, but it is not the only benefit. There is a present benefit for all believers, and it is Christ’s intercession for us.
In Medieval Roman Catholicism, a harvest of rotten fruit from improper thinking about Christ was in progress. It began early in Church history where the two natures of Christ were constantly misunderstood. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea attempted to snuff out Arianism (which claimed Christ was created by God) by affirming the deity of Christ. However, by the year 381 AD, it was evident that the corrections of the Council of Nicaea had been taken too far, and so the Council of Constantinople was held to affirm the humanity of Christ. Later, the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) and the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) were held to affirm the previous councils. This, however, did not stop further confusion from taking place. Church tradition began to see Christ as too glorious to address in prayer.
The idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus, would be sympathetic to the prayers of Christians took root. It was believed that, at least, Jesus would listen to His own mother if He was unable to listen to them. However, Mary soon became too glorious to address in prayer, and so her mother, Saint Anne, became the one to address in prayer. This line of reasoning continued until all the saints were involved in bringing the prayers of the people to God. To augment this problem, the language of the Bible did not change with the language of the people, and so the commoner was at the mercy of the priest to determine whether this practice was true.
This was the theological milieu into which the Reformers entered. It was a radical thing for them to not only read the Bible in their own language but to read of Christ interceding for them at the right hand of God. And so, a part of Reformation work was to reform the prayers of the people. They taught that Christ was not aloof from them—that He was not so far off that He could not hear them, nor sympathize with them.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
Contrary to the opposition to the Reformers, focusing on the humanity of Christ in his intercession for us does not place Christ on a lower level than God. The whole basis for the biblical argument is that Christ is truly God and truly man as He sits at the right hand of the Father. If He were only God, he could not feel with our weakness; if He were only man, He could not bear our requests to the Father.
That is why the whole doctrine of the incarnation was central to their argument. Because the eternal Son of God put on a body, there is now in heaven One who looks like we do—in human flesh—interceding for us at the right hand of God. If Christ had not come and put on human flesh, we would not have a mediator in heaven. That is why the writer of Hebrews continues with the confidence a believer has in Christ as our mediator:
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
Richard Sibbes, a sixteenth-century Puritan, applied this idea to the believer:
“Go boldly to God in your flesh. For this reason—that we might go boldly to him—he is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Never fear to go to God, since we have such a mediator with him who is not only our friend, but our brother and husband. Well might the angels proclaim from heaven, ‘Behold, we bring you tidings of joy.’ Well might the apostle stir us up to ‘rejoice in the Lord again and again’—he was well advised on what grounds he did it. Peace and joy are two main fruits of Christ’s kingdom. Let the world be as it will, if we cannot rejoice in this world, yet we may rejoice in the Lord. His presence makes any condition comfortable.”
This is the present benefit of the incarnation: we have Christ, who is like us, pleading our case before the Father. We need not fear facing rejection because of our condition, for the One who pleads for us has experienced our condition. He has not forgotten about us either—He cannot because He is still dressed in human form. This day, our great hope that God hears our prayers is founded upon the baby in the manger we celebrate at Christmas. Christ came to us so that we could go to God—not only as forgiven, clothed in righteousness, and atoned for, but also with confidence in a mediator who sympathizes with us.